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I was raped, then ruined by the systems that were supposed to help me

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Though she was a lawyer, the author struggled to navigate the systems that are supposed to help victims to be heard, to seek justice, and to obtain assistance to live (file photo) Photo: Unsplash / Andrey Zvyagintsev

Warning: This story discusses rape

I sit here, despairingly, struggling to put into words the chaos that has ravaged my life after I was raped.

I hear the voices of the people close to me who have told me I shouldn't tell this story, that it may do me more harm than good.

But herein lies the problem. Society would rather ignore these issues than deal with them. Apparently, a person who has suffered harm at the hands of another is not something to be spoken about. The word "rape" remains taboo along with the topic.

It's a topic that deserves discussion though. The people who are suffering and living with the trauma deserve to be acknowledged and heard.

It happened in an instant, but I remember every sickening detail. And I haven't been allowed to forget because ever since I've had to fight for support.

I would consider myself a "respectable citizen". I am a professional, a lawyer, yet I have found it extremely difficult to navigate the systems that are supposed to help victims to be heard, to seek justice, and to obtain assistance to live.

It took me two months to understand that what he did to me was not okay. I replayed every second of the encounter over and over, trying to understand what I did wrong and when it was that he decided that I had given him permission - I hadn't.

I went to the police - on my own. I was left to draft an affidavit for a protection order - on my own. After the rape, a colleague with family law experience wrote a letter warning my attacker to stay away and not contact me anymore. But when this elicited the opposite reaction, I sought a protection order, and my legal colleagues decided they couldn't assist me any longer, claiming they could not be "impartial", even though he wasn't a client. I couldn't understand - still can't - why they didn't want to help.

The entire process with the police was long and drawn out and achieved nothing. They didn't lay charges. They said it was because he had told them, "I thought she consented", and the passenger seat in his car, where he raped me, could be slowly lowered electronically, implying I had ample time to escape.

The fact that I had to push his hand off my neck and was left with a bruised sternum apparently wasn't relevant.

He had insisted I meet him "for closure" after our relationship ended. I'd eventually relented, leaving the office to meet him. Later, I remember looking out his car window and wondering how I was going to find my way back to the office. He had driven me to a deserted construction site and I had no idea where I was. I knew I needed to get home to my children unscathed - or as uninjured as possible.

When he breached the temporary protection order, I complained to the police. After that, Women's Refuge reached out. It is only because of them that I found my way to the most amazing solicitor I have ever come across. From the moment I walked into her office she had my back. It was the first time I felt heard and understood. She helped me to attain a final protection order, with the judge determining that an incident had occurred and that I had not given consent.

But by now the cracks were starting to show. I asked my employer for some time off work to deal with what I had been through. When I provided them with a medical certificate for more time - a second month - off work, I received a letter proposing to terminate my employment on the grounds of my absence. I later found out, even before that letter hit my inbox, my desk had already been cleared to make room for a partner returning from maternity leave.

Even though I had been attacked by an ex-boyfriend, they didn't seem to consider or even acknowledge that I had suffered a domestic violence incident. I believe that they were in breach of their obligations under the Domestic Violence Act. Under the Act, employees can take up to 10 days paid domestic violence leave, can ask for flexible working arrangements for up to two months, and should not be treated adversely in the workforce because they have experienced domestic violence. But the firm had the upper hand as I didn't have the will to fight. I resigned. I haven't worked since.

A year later, I discovered the extent of my trauma when I was taken on a date to the movies. We were watching "The Last Dual" - a medieval epic about a woman who is raped and not believed - and saw an experience akin to my ordeal played out on big screen right in front of me. I had to fight every instinct to flee the theatre because I didn't want to cause a scene. Instead, I sat staring at the fire exit sign, wishing the movie would end.

But the straw that broke the camel's back was dealing with ACC.

It has been over a year since I was assaulted and it is close to a year since I lodged a claim with ACC and yet I still haven't received compensation for lost wages.

The first case manager texted me and asked me to phone her. I did, but no-one ever picked up. We didn't connect for two months, by which time ACC had declined my claim because it had been so long since I submitted it and I hadn't engaged a psychologist. Of course, I only hadn't engaged a psychologist because I had no idea of the process, because I couldn't get hold of ACC.

I've since found a psychologist who is approved to carry out sensitive claims assessments, but rather than accepting her assessment and diagnosis, ACC has insisted that I'm assessed by a psychiatrist I don't know to determine my incapacity to work.

Due to long waiting times, I'm not able to see a psychiatrist until June. To me, this seems a ruse to delay the process as much as possible. It also makes me feel that I'm under the microscope, that some third party I don't know must verify that I was attacked and have suffered since, as though I can't be trusted and nor can my ACC-approved psychologist.

I've already been degraded and humiliated, and it feels like ACC now wants me to justify my innocence - that I'm not some liar who has made up an assault and its impacts.

ACC's process also means I'm supposed to go and tell my whole, painful story to yet another stranger. It feels like ACC is insisting on retraumatising me. ACC's Code of Claimants Rights says I have the right to be treated with dignity and respect, to be communicated with effectively and to be fully informed, among other things. I have been left un-informed, felt dismissed, and made to follow a process which further demoralises and revictimises.

After it took two months to make contact with my ACC case manager, she was unable to explain why it took her a further two months to send a referral letter to a psychiatrist after being given the go ahead to do so.

From the outset, the sensitive claims process was never explained to me. I've been given no explanation as to why I'm required to see a psychiatrist, and there have been so many unanswered phone calls, voice messages and emails to my case manager that I feel like I'm just another case number.

A system designed to help some of society's most vulnerable feels devoid of compassion. It is not being used in the way for which it was designed, and that was to cover the gap between the Injury and rehabilitation.

I find it disturbing that the same minister - Carmel Sepuloni - has responsibility for both the Ministry of Social Development and ACC. How can policies and procedures be implemented impartially? ACC usually offers more financial support than Work and Income. From what I've seen, the ACC process seems designed to delay approving claims, forcing you to seek assistance from Work and Income. There must be a cost saving there.

If my colleagues and employer had supported me more, if the police had dealt with my complaint quickly, I wouldn't be in the position I am right now. But it is ACC who has played the biggest role in ruining my life.

I have been unable to get the support ACC was established to provide. Their processes and procedures have made it near impossible.

My finances are now all but depleted and I am reliant on family support. As a professional, who has strived to be independent and contribute to society, who has been a tax-paying citizen for the past 22 years, ACC has repaid me by failing to support me and stripping me of my dignity.

In the end it boils down to how society responds to rape. If only we - individuals and agencies like ACC and the police - could properly acknowledge people's hardships as a result of sexual violence, then maybe victims wouldn't end up so lost, forced into a world of darkness.

ACC Responds:

ACC acknowledges there were delays in how this client's claim was managed and has apologised, ACC Chief Operating Office Gabrielle O'Connor said in a statement. The agency did not did not answer RNZ's questions about why it took two months for a referral to be sent to a psychiatrist, but O'Connor said this client was given a new case manager in November.

"We know that the claims process for survivors of sexual violence can be long and challenging and it is an area we are working to address. This includes working with providers to streamline the supported assessment process.

"However, one of the challenges is that trauma therapy for sexual violence is a highly skilled profession. There is a very limited number of clinical psychologists in New Zealand with the qualifications required to carry out the assessment [this client] requires, a shortage that has been further impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic."

This client's psychologist was not approved to carry out incapacity assessments, O'Connor said. "Under the Accident Compensation Act 2001, ACC must consider an assessment undertaken by a medical or nurse practitioner when determining incapacity to work. It also states ACC may obtain any professional, technical, specialised or other advice from any person we consider appropriate.

"The Integrated Services for Sensitive Claims (ISSC) Contract stipulates our requirements of who can assess a client's inability to work, through an incapacity assessment. This must be completed by an ACC registered psychiatrist. However, if a psychiatrist is not available to undertake the assessment within four weeks of the referral, a supplier can apply for a clinical psychologist to do so. This must be pre-approved by ACC before the service is provided."

The client told RNZ she had not been made aware that this was an option.

Following RNZ's enquiries, ACC has offered the client an earlier appointment with a different psychiatrist.

Police respond:

Police understand and acknowledge that the decision not to proceed with a prosecution in this matter has been upsetting for the complainant, a police spokesperson told RNZ.

"Any report of sexual assault is taken very seriously by Police and we are committed to thoroughly investigating any complaints of this nature. At the completion of any investigation, the Police need to apply the Solicitor General's Guidelines regarding the decision to prosecute.

"There are two tests that need to considered before any prosecution action can occur - evidential sufficiency and public interest. The evidential sufficiency test states that the evidence which can be adduced in Court must be sufficient to provide a reasonable prospect of conviction.

"In this case, the evidential test was not met, therefore a prosecution was unable to proceed.

"While we understand that this can be upsetting for complainants, police are unable to prosecute when the prosecution guidelines are not met.

"We are also mindful of the potential further trauma for a complainant should we embark on a prosecution which we do not believe has a reasonable prospect of conviction."

Where to get help:

NZ Police

Victim Support 0800 842 846

Rape Crisis 0800 88 33 00

Rape Prevention Education

Empowerment Trust

HELP Call 24/7 (Auckland): 09 623 1700, (Wellington): 04 801 6655 - push 0 at the menu

Safe to talk: a 24/7 confidential helpline for survivors, support people and those with harmful sexual behaviour: 0800044334

Male Survivors Aotearoa

source: https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/465111/i-was-raped-then-ruined-by-the-systems-that-were-supposed-to-help-me